Raleigh has a chance to win a $40 million grant from the federal Department of Transportation to initiate a modern, efficient transit plan. The DOT calls it the “Smart City Challenge,” and Raleigh’s planners, along with N.C. State University engineers, are feverishly at work to present something at Tuesday’s city council meeting.
The developing plan is under wraps because as Eric Lamb, the city’s transportation planning manager, said, it’s important that Raleigh not give away some of its ideas to competitors, including Charlotte, Durham and Greensboro. From 60 mid-sized American cities eligible for the grant, the DOT will pick five semifinalists in March, giving each $100,000 to refine the proposal.
Some of the possibilities: a driverless bus line between NCSU and downtown, synchronized traffic lights that adjust based on traffic flow, any and all ideas that might move traffic along with more efficiency.
Raleigh is fortunate to be home to one of the nation’s foremost engineering schools, and the DOT ought to keep that in mind. The idea behind the competition is for the winner to develop plans that other cities can use. The Capital City also is at the center of a group of high-tech companies, some of which certainly could provide technical expertise and suggest innovations to apply to transit advances.
Once criticized by some residents as too conservative when it came to dreaming big, Raleigh is more willing to experiment, which is why there’s optimism at City Hall that Raleigh has a chance here. It is a state capital; it has plans to cooperate with Wake County to move ahead with local and regional transit modernization; it is a neighbor to Research Triangle Park, which is ready and willing to participate in modern transit options to facilitate travel around its complex and wants to create campuses that are walker-friendly and transit-friendly.
The competition is important as well because Raleigh and Durham and Orange County are looking to connect with one another in ways that are not as reliant on the big highways now clogged at ever-extended rush hours.
Skeptics need to be reminded that innovations now taken for granted in automobile engineering – from vehicles that can park themselves to backup cameras to other changes small and large – once were dreams on a drawing board.
Even if Raleigh doesn’t win, participating in this challenge will get more transportation innovations rolling.